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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

Factors which might influence the provision of effective pastoral care to elderly people within a selection of Church of England parishes

Peter Speck, Marie Mills and Peter G Coleman write about a new research project at the University of Southampton.


Within the UK there is little current research on the beliefs and practices of older individuals (Knox 2002). Recent work by Coleman, Mills and Speck (2002) has identified a little-studied group of people who have a moderate strength of belief associated with significant psychological and spiritual difficulties in later life and bereavement. Given our ageing population and the extensive literature surrounding the positive effect of religion on longevity and well-being in later life, there is little empirical investigation of service provision and care of the elderly in the faith community. In particular there are few studies examining the role of the faith leaders in caring for the elderly of their faith group.

There is an extensive American literature indicating a link between religious practice and morbidity and mortality. Evidence indicates that actively embracing a religious faith reduces the onset of physical and mental illness, aids recovery from physical illness and contributes to a longer life span. It is argued that the effects are mainly the result of greater social support and sense of coherence or meaning provided by the religious faith. (George, Larson, Koenig, and McCulloch 2000; Pargament 1997). Gerontological education research suggests that attitudes towards ageing and the elderly are a function of knowledge about the ageing process (Harris and Dollinger 2001). However it is suggested that gerontological education needs to be reviewed within the theological arena (Knapp et al 2002). Research within the UK suggests that many older individuals feel that their religious and spiritual needs are not met within faith communities (Knox 2002).

Recent studies by Coleman, Mills and Speck (2002; Speck, Bennett et al 2005) indicate a degree of disaffection amongst older people with organised religion because of the lack of contact through visiting once they become less mobile. Many of these people had a deep spirituality in spite of being unable to express it in a corporate context of worship. Our interviews showed that many people had had an active religious faith for most of their life but as they became older and less able to attend church they felt more and more marginalised. They had become quite resentful of the lack of visiting and contact with other worshippers and talked of being 'abandoned'. Nearly all of them had had a 'church funeral' for their spouse. We also found that these people had a high score for strength of spiritual belief. We felt that we should investigate this further as the experience of these older bereaved people was only a part of the whole picture of pastoral care of older people in the community.

Our Nuffield-supported (SAGA) study drew on an opportunistic sample of SAGA magazine readers who had responded to an article in the magazine describing Leveson Newsletter Issue 14 o November 2005 21 our earlier bereavement study. We invited these respondents to complete a series of questionnaires which elicited strength of belief, sources of meaning and selfesteem in life, mental and physical health, life attitudes and a history of their religious journey. 447 people responded. On analysis their responses indicated that those who expressed a decreased level of existential transcendence and decreased personal meaning had increased levels of depression. There was a clear correlation between strength of belief and depression as well as the degree of choice and control that they could exercise (Mills, Coleman, Speck 2003).

The term 'older people' relates to a very diverse population ranging from people physically or mentally active to those affected by decreased mobility and mental functioning. It is tempting to see older people as 'problems'. There is, therefore, a need to investigate whether knowledge, attitudes and anxieties towards personal ageing and the ageing process impact upon the support by faith communities of beliefs in later life. Older individuals have a great role to play in the faith community (Knox 2002). It is important to explore the nature of any difficulties experienced by local church leaders and faith communities in providing for the elderly in their congregations and to identify any support or training needs to enable services and care for our ageing population that sustain and re-enforce beliefs in later life. The Knox study looked at one Church of England diocese and it is difficult to know whether the findings of this study are duplicated in other parts of the Church of England.

The Nuffield (SAGA) study shows that elderly people are well able to express their needs and their views and wish to be involved as active participants in decision making. For a real pastoral encounter there may be a need for increased understanding of one's own attitude to personal ageing in order to be comfortable in relating to others who are ageing. There are parallels with the need for carers in palliative care to address their own mortality if they are to be able to relate meaningfully with those they care for. In light of the views expressed in the SAGA study and the Southampton bereavement study, and the health and wellbeing issues raised, we believe it important to examine the factors which influence the ongoing spiritual support of older people as they become less mobile in view of the relevance for overall health profiles in later life. There may also be need to identify educational needs of clergy and lay people in light of possible unrealistic expectations and changing needs within our society as a whole.

Our research

We are, therefore, in the process of exploring some of the factors which might influence the provision of effective pastoral care to elderly people within a selection of Church of England parishes. There are three aspects to our study: We will enquire about:

  • The knowledge held by the clergy of the process of ageing and their skills in relating to older people and any difficulties they experience.
  • Models of good practice in the continuing care of elderly people within their congregation and those who are housebound.
  • The attitudes held by clergy concerning their own ageing and the extent to which this might influence relationships with people older than themselves.

The study is designed in three phases:

Phase 1 involves the administration of a postal questionnaire containing a demographic survey and three self-report questionnaires assessing knowledge and attitudes towards ageing and the elderly. Participants will also be asked to identify examples of good practice known to them, and to reflect on why they chose to respond to the study. The measures used are well validated scales on attitudes and anxieties towards ageing as exemplified by: Knowledge of Aging and the Elderly Quiz (Kline, Scialfa, Stier and Babbitt 1990); Attitudes to Ageing Scale (O'Hanlon 2002, O'Hanlan and Coleman 2004). Anonymity is preserved by assigning a code to each questionnaire and interview schedule.

Phase 2 will involve a series of taped interviews with a randomly selected subsample of participants from Phase 1, who have already given their permission to be considered for selection. The individuals will be contacted for a telephone or face-to-face interview and (following permission to record) encouraged to elucidate on their attitudes and knowledge expressed in Phase 1. Questions asked will include explication of any practical experience, formal training and theological education concerning gerontology. The participants will be asked to explain their areas of ministry interest, and the current opportunities available for active involvement of older individuals within their faith community. The participants will be asked whether they perceive there to be any external limitations (funding, regulations, time) on their work with older individuals. We will then inquire what each individual feels the elderly have to offer to the faith community and identify examples of good practice. The tapes will be transcribed and the original recordings destroyed at the end of the study. If time allows we would wish to develop, from in-depth interviews, six case studies from this sub-sample.

Phase 3 will involve the composition of a final report of the investigation. This will take place during the final two months of the project.


We believe that this study will have an impact both within faith communities and gerontology as a whole. The study could identify the need for greater gerontological education in order to promote positive attitudes towards ageing and the older community. The findings will have policy implications for religious communities, the health professions and psychological, theological and health education. It will indicate whether pastoral carers for individuals in later life are affected by personal experience of ageing and attitudes towards the Leveson Newsletter Issue 14 o November 2005 23 ageing process and, as such, enable us to further examine the role of education in promoting both positive attitudes and service provision for older people.

Address for correspondence

If any readers wish to contribute their views or examples of good practice in this area of ministry we can be contacted by e-mail: or Revd Prebendary Peter Speck, c/o Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, SO17 1BJ.


  • Coleman P, McKiernan F, Mills M and Speck P (2002), 'Spiritual belief and quality of life: the experience of older bereaved spouses', Quality in Ageing - Policy, practice and research 3(1), 20-26.
  • George L K, Larson D B, Koenig H G and McCullock M E (2000), 'Spirituality and health: what we know, what we need to know', Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19(1), 102-116.
  • Harris L A and Dollinger B (2001), 'Participation in a course on aging: knowledge, attitudes and anxiety about aging in oneself and others', Educational Gerontology 27, 657-67.
  • Kline D W, Scialfa CT, Stier D and Babbitt T J (1990), 'Effects of bias and educational experience on two knowledge of aging questionnaires', Educational Gerontology 16, 297-310.
  • Knapp J L, Beaver L M and Reed T D (2002), 'Perceptions of the elderly among ministers and ministry students: implications for seminary curricula', Educational Gerontology 28, 313-24.
  • Knox I (2002), Older People and the Church, T&T Clark (London).
  • Lasher K P and Faulkender P J (1993), 'Measurement of aging anxiety: development of the anxiety about aging scale', International Journal of Aging and Human Development 37(4),. 247-59.
  • Mills M, Coleman P, McKiernan F and Speck P (2001), 'Relational Research: methodological issues in the recruitment and retention of participants in qualitatively orientated studies over time' (paper presented at British Society of Gerontology Conference, Stirling University, August 2001).
  • Mills M, Coleman P and Speck P (2003), 'Supporting beliefs in later life: a challenge to churches and other faith communities in the UK' (paper presented at GSA and abstracted in Gerontologist, submitted for publication to Journal for Scientific Study of Religion)
  • O'Hanlon A M and Brookover B C (2002), 'Assessing Changes in Attitudes about Aging: Personal reflections and a standardized measure', Educational Gerontology 28, 711-25.
  • O'Hanlon A and Coleman P G (2004), 'Attitudes towards ageing: adaptation, development and growth into later years' in J Nussbaum and J Coupland (eds) Handbook of Communication and Ageing Research, Lawrence Erlbaum (Hillsdale NJ).
  • Palmore E (1998), The Facts of Aging Quiz (2nd edn), Springer (New York)
  • Pargament K I (1997), The Psychology of Religious Coping, Guilford (New York).
  • Rosencratz H A and McNevin M A (1969), 'A factor analysis of attitudes toward the aged', The Gerontologist 9, 55-9.
  • Speck P, Bennett K M et al (2005), 'Elderly bereaved spouses: issues of belief, well-being and support' in A Walker (ed), Understanding Quality of Life in Old Age, Open University Press (Maidenhead).

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